Peter Ilbery 1923 - 2017
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Peter Ilbery, pioneer in field of bone marrow transplants

Peter Ilbery flew Bristol Beaufighters during the Second World War, making regular attacks on German shipping. After the war he retrained, studying medicine and undertaking radiological research, which led to the development of bone marrow transplants in humans.

Born in 1923, the third son of William Sawers Ilbery and Beth Jewell Mayhew, a farming family from Narrogin in the WA wheat belt, he grew up in Neutral Bay in Sydney.

After an extended family visit to Sydney, the family decided to have Peter, aged five, stay in the city with his paternal maiden aunt, Mabel Adelaide. She became his surrogate mother. Peter attended Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). His school years at Shore were happy but as World War II loomed, school cadet training became a serious task.

At 18 he joined the Empire Air Training Scheme, created to provide trained aircrew for the Royal Air Force. He trained in Australia and Britain as a pilot and was allocated to 455 Squadron RAAF. Flying Officer Ilbery was 22 years old. The squadron was equipped with the Bristol Beaufighter and was part of the RAF's Coastal Command. In the last year of the war it attacked German ships bringing iron down the Norwegian coast to industrial centres in Germany.

Flying from Scotland over the North Sea to attack shipping sheltering in Norwegian fiords was dangerous and casualties were high. In an operation on April 11, 1945, Ilbery and his navigator were part of an attack by three Beaufighter squadrons against ships sheltering to the north of the Norwegian coastal town of Bergen. The Beaufighter formation attacked the armed merchant ships and their escorts despite anti-aircraft flak, firing cannons and rockets. Ilbery's aircraft was hit by flak and he lost his port engine. He nursed his aircraft across the North Sea to Scotland alone and on one engine. The undercarriage was also damaged and Ilbery made his first belly landing at the squadron base at RAF Dallachy in Scotland. Ilbery had flown 20 operational sorties by the time 455 Squadron was disbanded at the end of the war.

Arriving back in Australia, Ilbery studied medicine at Sydney University under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. In 1951 he married Marianne Boyer, an arts graduate from the same campus.

The increasing use of radiation in medicine became his consuming interest and he travelled back to Britain to study the biological effects of radiation at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. He became a research assistant to Dr John Loutit FRS, an Australian directing the Medical Research Council's Radiobiological Research Unit.

A university teaching and research post with laboratory and animal facilities was made for him in Sir Edward Ford's School of Public Health in Sydney and Ilbery was also appointed to the new post of honorary cytogeneticist at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. His radiobiological research earned him a Doctorate of Medicine from the University of Sydney in 1960.


Ilbery undertook research into resuscitating animals after they had been given a lethal dose of radiation. A fundamental outcome of this research led to the development of bone marrow transplants in humans.

In 1970, Ilbery was appointed associate professor in radiation biology, the first senior academic post of its kind in Australia, and for 10 years he was one of the three members of the Safety Review Committee of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission at Lucas Heights.

From 1974 he was appointed the medical director of the Cancer Institute Board in Victoria, now known as The Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute. In 1979 he moved to Canberra to take an appointment as the assistant director general in the Commonwealth Department of Health.

After retirement, Ilbery continued working for another decade in Canberra as a radiological locum.

Air Force history was a passion for Ilbery. His book Empire Airmen Strike Back was published by Banner Books in 1999 and he was a prime mover in creating the British Commonwealth Air Memorial at Dallachy in Scotland, which he unveiled in 1992. He chaired the committee organising memorials to the pilots of the Empire Air Training Scheme who graduated from the Uranquinty and Wagga Flying Training Schools and have no known graves. He was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for his service to the community and especially for recording the history of the Air Training Scheme School at Uranquinty.

The bonds between the members of 455 Squadron remained strong throughout their lives. When he passed away in December aged 94, Ilbery was one of the last surviving members of the squadron. 

He is survived by wife Marianne and four children, Marianne, Peter, Katherine and Robert, and nine grandchildren.